In Search of the Sensory Experience: The Sensory Ethnography Lab / Focus SEL

by Daniel Ribas / 11 11 2016

The following article intends to give an overview of the Sensory Ethnography Lab, whose work will be in retrospective at Porto/Post/Doc 2016. To view the films that will be screened, go to this page.

In the last decades, the field of ethnography has undergone profound changes. Aware of the difficulty in looking at the other and writing about these experiences, anthropologists and ethnographers sought new ways of disseminating knowledge. In these forms, punctuated the audio-visual record. The Sensory Ethnography Lab appears in this context, “promoting innovative combinations of aesthetics and ethnography”. In this sense, the laboratory “uses analogue and digital media to explore the aesthetics and ontology of the natural and unnatural world.  Harnessing perspectives drawn from the arts, the social and natural sciences, and the humanities, the SEL encourages attention to the many dimensions of the world, both animate and inanimate, that may only with difficulty, if it all, be rendered with propositional prose.  Most works produced in the SEL take as their subject the bodily praxis and affective fabric of human and animal existence.”

SEL is an academic laboratory, of the University of Harvard, directed by Lucien Castaing-Taylor. Accepting within them filmmakers and ethnographers, their intention is to promote the production of documentaries as a form of sensorial ethnography. Thus, in the last decade, SEL has produced several films that have altered the panorama of the ethnographic cinema, exploring new technological forms to combine the fieldwork with the sensory experience of cinema. The most evident result of this laboratory has been the documentary films, which in fact try to deal with palpable realities, in which the camera and sound recorders try to capture, with intensity, a certain community. There is, therefore, a technological side to the films produced by SEL: smaller, portable digital cameras, more effective and “invisible” audio capture systems allow a close monitoring of ritual practices or certain locations and their communities.

On the other hand, SEL films maintain a recurrence of ethnographic cinema: the experience of time. That is, they seek through the patience of the ethnographer to look and feel, over a long period of time, the subtle human behaviours. It is by insisting that the ethnographer “integrates” the community and, in this way, manages to surprise it in its most mundane actions. Many of SEL films depend on this experience of time: the several summers spent with sheep in Sweetgrass (Ilisa Barbash, Lucien Castaing-Taylor, 2009); the period spent in the automobile repair quarter in Willets Point, New York, for Foreign Parts (Véréna Paravel, J.P. Sniadecki, 2010); or the very dynamics of film time in Manakamana's (Stephanie Spray, Pacho Velez, 2013) or People's Park’s (J.P. Sniadecki, Libbie Dina Cohn, 2012) real-time recording.

However, SEL's ethnographic and aesthetic gesture is present in several of its thematic dimensions. On the one hand, the discursive balance between humans, animals and even non-living elements. In these films, there is a new logic of interest, which passes through a multisensoriality: everything has the same value in the plane of image and sound. Two technical characteristics contribute to this result: on the one hand, the sound no longer has an indexical value: the long shot can be joined with a sonic close-up; on the other hand, SEL filmmakers have made creative use of “action cameras” (such as GoPro cameras), allowing for makings points of views and action dynamics different from classical cinema. The paradigmatic examples of this are the views of the sheep in Sweetgrass, where their animality gains a new subjectivity, and also in the fish of Leviathan (Véréna Paravel, Lucien Castaing-Taylor, 2012) in their defenceless vision of predatory seagulls.

Another characteristic of these films is to account for a changing world. For example, both Sweetgrass and Foreign Parts peer at the end of something (sheep transportation and the workshop block, respectively), and in that sense there is a will to record ways of life that seem to be getting lost. On the other hand, SEL films promote a pedagogy of work, of its manual and physical strength. Technological devices and the ethnographer's gaze – aesthetics and ethnography - have a function of fixing a particular community, its forms of work, and in this they assume a political position that stems from a sensorial aesthetic. For this reason, SEL projects extravasate the idea of cinema in the theatre, trying to make installation devices, promoting new exhibition strategies. In this sense, the SEL ends up approaching an aesthetic of the documentary and an aesthetics of avant-garde cinema.

This focus on the Sensory Ethnography Lab allows us to perceive how documentary cinema has reinvented itself, trying to promote new strategies for ethnography, taking into account its starting position, a position of lack or inaccessibility. The SEL sensory cinema seeks to reconcile an aesthetic commitment with ethnography. In a sense, it not only seeks: it tells us that only in this way can we understand the other. Art and science to understand our world.

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